I came to the MPhil after working as a UK state school English teacher for fifteen years (a career I came to late anyway) for the British military in Cyprus (a long story in itself). So, I had the usual concerns of being the oldest student in the room. I also had a family to move – including three rescue cats – from overseas in Cyprus. There were lots of things to consider and manage so it was a relief to finally arrive and start the course. Cambridge is everything it says on the tin: wonderful, beautiful, fascinating. It’s a city of superlatives.
When the Blog Committee approached me to write a blog about my typical day on the MPhil, I wasn’t sure what to do. There is no such thing as a typical day on the MPhil which is actually what I love about it. First, know this: it’s intense. Very intense. But in a good way – everything is so interesting and the research is led by your own interests. I found previous blogs by current students like this one particularly useful for working out what my actual schedule and daily life would look like – and the workload!
There is much written about the college system so I won’t go into too much detail here but my one piece of advice: everybody is clueless about it when they arrive (unless they’ve already studied at a collegiate university before) and the welcome events are designed to show you the hang of things. It’s okay not to know.
The first day I visited my College everyone was so friendly – the staff went out of their way to make me feel really welcome and valued – and they still do. Yes, there are the formal Halls (the Harry Potter dinner thing: gowns, capes…light sabres – I might be lying about the last detail) but there are also things like board games night, wine tasting, a free brunch every fortnight all for graduate students. Oh – and a gazillion sports, if that’s your thing. My college also offers social events for families and partners of students, so don’t worry about being ‘too old’.
It’s surreal thinking that Coleridge and Milton walked the same halls that I do. That’s Cambridge for you: history oozes out of every pore. Note: I should probably also tell you that I have met graduates at my College that essentially work-study full time here (in their roles – mostly at the hospital) so only dip in and out of events as and when it suits: there is certainly no pressure to attend. And they, like me, live ‘out’ – I have a house in a local village that suits us better as a family. A nice detail is that Homerton – which is next door to the Faculty and which has longstanding links to the study of children’s literature – is within spitting distance of the train station which is extremely useful. Most Cambridge students regard Homerton as being miles out, but it really isn’t. That misconception is just testament to the myopic sense of distance here in the city).
Lastly, I should mention here that our Faculty (which is separate to your college) has a graduate society with a rich and varied events schedule – many specifically for ‘older’ students with ‘responsibilities’ (a.k.a. a family). They even offer a workshop about Imposter Syndrome: it’s surprisingly common (I’m a fellow sufferer) so you’re not alone if you’re feeling that already…
Social-wise, it is my belief that there is no such thing as small talk in Cambridge: it’s quite a conversation when you have a PhD astrophysicist, PhD international development and MPhil Children’s Literature chatting at the college bar (I’ve just realised that sounds like a build up to a joke!). The good thing? Everybody loves talking about children’s books as there’s so many fond memories they want to share.
Oh – the sports thing
There are many jokes about Crossfitters and how boring we are if we start talking to you about it (there is a Crossfit joke adapted from a vegan joke: ‘How can you tell someone is a Crossfitter? Don’t worry – they’ll tell you.’). However, there are quite a few like-minded sports people in our community (both undergraduate and graduate) and my PhD friend May has created #Camwod which is great for blasting the cardio and de-stressing. As we camwodders come from all walks of life – the conversations are always interesting: if we get the time and breath to talk!
The course itself
Like all environments where you have a varied mix of age, experience, nationality, gender, diversity, etc., there is a real dynamism to our discussion and work. I am here to learn, and part of that is the contribution of knowledge and experience of those around you. What’s been of particular interest to me are the texts which are ‘well known’ in countries like the USA but have little recognition in the UK – already the texts I’m lining up for my return to my classroom have quadrupled.
Having been out of the study game for a long time, it’s a relief to know that some of my academic learning a) hasn’t left me and b) is still relevant. Of course, I’m not here just for a brush-up of what I already know. As children’s literature is interdisciplinary and still an emerging field, we are getting to grips with cognitive narratology, post-humanism, eco-criticism and a long, winding, translated ramble about being naked and ashamed in front of your cat (I’m looking at you, Derrida!).
On the MPhil, you have to take a Research Methods strand with other MPhil routes at the Faculty, such as International Development and Psychology and Education. The much-discussed research methods strand is like Marmite for us KiddieLitters. It is actually a love of mine: coming from a teaching background, I find the international case studies of educational contexts fascinating – particularly because children’s reading is my main research area. In a Research Methods lecture I could be working with a high school physics teacher from Canada, a Korean student who wants to introduce different education models to her country, and a development worker whose expertise is in the education of refugee children in America. So, as you can see, there is never a dull moment.
So, there is no typical day – but it may help to tell you how I organise one of mine. I usually read the primary texts in advance (particularly those weight tomes such as The Hobbit and Treasure Island) and do the secondary reading – such as research articles – closer to the workshop. Often, I do this in the morning before the workshop if the timing fits; or the day or two before. This is so it’s fresh in my mind. Around this, I will be researching for my assignments.
If you are a library-phile like me, Cambridge will rock your world – there is a library for almost every occasion. The Education Faculty library is beautiful – lots of huge windows looking out onto greenery and frolicking squirrels; but my College library has Anthony Gormley sculpture (I kid you not), blankets, charging cables, bean bags, board games, ‘free’ books to lend and is open twenty-four hours (I haven’t partaken of this particular aspect – yet!). Another note for the old crusties out there: most of the articles you need are online so you don’t even have to do the physical searching anymore – ditto the books. A revelatory tool? Being able to search for terms within a book on my own laptop. Times have certainly changed. Most of my research can be done at home from my kitchen table. Great in some ways but my cats don’t always make this easy.
At the weekend I was down at the Natural History Museum in London in the bookshop picking up some texts for my next assignment – it hardly felt like work.
Everyone has their own reason for being here, and on the MPhil we hail from all over the world, but what we all have in common is that we want to live the Cambridge experience to the full: there are so many talks, lectures, events going on that you can’t even scratch the surface. There is always time for doing something new… and there is always someone who will want to do it with you. Before I left my school, my colleagues gave me a ‘365 things to do in Cambridge’ I am already failing spectacularly to cover them all, even though several of them are famous pubs! Hopefully you will do better #challenge.
Jamie Purdie is a current MPhil student on sabbatical from the Ministry of Defence schools organisation (British military schools overseas). He comes to his studies with fifteen years of state school teaching experience at primary and secondary level, in English, drama, media and film.